Thursday, March 11, 2010

Floating Away On Detritus Of Pop Music

Part of the charm of getting older is that you get to get bitter about what you view as the idiocy of youth... and specifically youth culture. As I spent my teen years as one of those weirdo cranky outsiders, it's actually quite nice to get less bitter as I get older, but it coincides with a downturn in the quality of popular music. If I were 27 in the early '90s, I could be an alt-rock type, in the late-90s, I could have been a Stereolab-loving aesthete, while still taking ironic pleasure in the harmless but vapid pop charts. Ten years out, there is very little mainstream pop music that's worth listening to.. and that's coming from a guy who's willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. To quote a writer named Huw Jones, from Slant Magazine:
"These days our stars are force-fed to us by Simon Cowell and reality television, our chart-topping singles merely cover versions of songs that were cutting edge decades ago, and the entire concept of "pop music" is relegated to fodder for our celebrity voyeurism: penned by the talented, performed by the beautiful."

Which is why I am thrilled to tell you that I love the new Gorillaz record.

Will it top my "best of 2010" list? Probably not. But I love the idea of a resigned pop star piecing together some entertainment through a motley group of outcasts and also-rans, making a record that sounds contemporary simply because it stands in such sharp relief to the prevailing trends of the day. Title allusions aside, this album reminds me of nothing so much as Wilson the beach ball from Tom Hanks' Cast Away - this is an album made to make oneself happy, to keep yourself active and happy, lest you become swallowed by the blackness of it all. It's got a touch of melancholy that things aren't as good as they could be, but it's still making an effort... and by continuing to hold on, it's the most hopeful record I've heard in years. Pretty strange stuff coming from a group of cartoons led by a former popstar.

I was cautious. Albums this loaded with name guest-stars are usually a red flag to me (see Massive Attack's "Heligoland"), but when Snoop Dogg's voice comes wafting out of the speakers, it triggers a strange familiarity. Here's an artist who hasn't been crucial in almost 20 years, but his voice is so comfortable, it gives you a way into the moaning keyboards and lurching beats. Every review I've read of the album makes note of the "weirdo grandfather" vibe that Lou Reed's appearance gives off, and the doomsday declamations of the Fall's Mark E. Smith... but these are just signifiers for nerd-types like myself. In a project this conceptual, the creators are banking on your familiarity with these voices - they want you to listen to this thing pre-loaded, so that you can appreciate the cast of characters. It really does help if you know past work and history by the likes of Reed, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, and De La Soul. It's like casting them all in a play, but typecasting every one of them. When your brain flips through a rolodex of larger-than-life characters, it's concpetual shorthand. They're not just bringing a performance to the table, they're bringing everything they've done. But by playing to type, pop listeners with no interest in the Velvet Underground will still get the "vibe" of the dry declamations by Ol' Lou.

Of course, none of this would work if the music didn't hold up. And as many have noted, the melange of modern styles that Gorillaz have combined since their first record in 2001 has become less state-of-the-art and more State Of The Union. Combining hip-hop and pop and electronic and indie rock in a highly-concpetual [i.e. cartoon] fashion is no longer as confusing and surprising as it once was, so instead of dwelling on the squelching hooks, we can focus on the emotion behind it. Musical leader Damon Albarn (you like how I didn't mention him until this far in?) long ago made his reputation as a pop writer, and on the last two or three Blur albums (depending on how you look at them) gave us his gift for setting moods through textures. And if the haunted machines of the first two Gorillaz albums didn't clue you in, his under-heard work with The Good, The Bad, And The Queen showed us that he could craft deep nests for throbbing bass grooves (courtesy of The Clash's Paul Simonon, who appears here, along with his Clash bandmate, Mick Jones). This album is nowhere near as fresh as the first one, but its depth isn't even discovered on the third or fourth listen. The pop is poppier, the murk is murkier, and by cobbling together something that stands as its own pop island, floating further and further away from Simon Cowell's mainland, waving goodbye, and ready to cobble together something from whatever it has left, one has to wonder why more people aren't building their own islands out of the scraps that nobody else seems to want anymore. Again... not bad for a bunch of cartoons.

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